I was raised in the North American glossy Age of the Supermarket. It was during this age people developed the first of many fears of things we never feared before. For instance, if a food item was not boxed, bagged, canned, scrubbed clean, frozen or vacuum packed, we believed it was probably unsafe. Meat’s origins were a mystery.
Seeing individual, portion-sized raw meat safely plastic wrapped, helped me overlook the unsavoury details inherent in the process of transforming a living creature into bite-sized portions served on my dinner plate. Being a child who would never wish to hurt any living creature, my ability to set aside meat processing details were aided and abetted by the super clean, super wrapping Supermarkets.
As a child, I did not give much thought to where food came from because it was abundantly clear. Food came out of the back of trucks. My exposure to farms and farming was limited to drawings and stories in children’s books. Cows were always shown casually munching on grass and chickens ran free. Although the scratch and sniff technology originated during my childhood, I do not recall any book publisher taking advantage of the new capability when producing children’s books about farms. Old MacDonald had a farm and on his farm he had everything except a sense of smell. E I E I O – what a stink.
What came up first?
The chicken or the egg?
It was this lack of awareness that had me accepting a part-time job at the ripe age of 13 at what would become Canada’s largest chicken farm, located in Powell River, British Columbia. The smell of the sulphur from the local pulp and paper mill was nothing compared to the acrid smell inside the sprawling barns with row upon row of chickens doing their best to fulfill their egg delivery quota despite their cramped quarters, constant noise and the perpetual threat of extinction. Once past its prime, a chicken’s fate was sealed. Soon it would be de-feathered, dismantled and found wrapped in plastic at the Supermarket.
My mother did not understand my sudden aversion to chicken and insisted on serving it every time I returned from a shift on the farm. It would take years before I was able to eat chicken again; years before I was able to revert back to my old ways and buy chicken parts in Supermarkets deluding myself into believing they were merely food ingredients originating from the back of a truck.
Today, North American Supermarkets have evolved and many offer more than food boxed, bagged, canned, scrubbed clean, frozen or vacuum packed. They also offer unwashed, un-scrubbed, unwrapped food items some of which still have dirt on them. These food items are found in a section labelled ‘organic’ and sold at a premium. FritoLay, a large food bagging company headquartered in Dallas, Texas, even has products in the ‘organic’ section. It is there you can find TOSTITOS® SIMPLY NATURAL™ Blue Corn Restaurant Style Tortilla Chips. Besides winning the prize for one of the world’s longest-named tortilla chip products, they also win a prize for bravery. On the package is a large banner that reads, “80% organic ingredients.”
That they chose to put that banner on their package suggests they were prepared to take the risk that most people would be willing to overlook the details of exactly what the remaining 20 per cent of the ingredients might be.
Green eggs and ham, indeed
What does this have to do with Hungary? Well, it comes back to the age-old question: Which came first? The anaemic chicken or the anaemic egg? When we first arrived in Hungary, I was somewhat grossed out by the eggs. I had never seen eggs with yokes so deep in colour. They weren’t the pale yellow I was accustomed to and trusted: they were more orange than yellow. What’s more, they were being sold in corner stores, often stacked in a corner and always unrefrigerated. Was this safe?
The dirt on produce
I also discovered corner produce stores selling a variety of food items (some of which I recognised, such as carrots), none packaged, none plastic-wrapped, none washed, many with dirt still clinging to them yet there was no sign saying ‘organic’ and they were often priced less than their plastic wrapped counterparts in Supermarkets.
Then there are the markets in Budapest. Whether it is the Központi Vásárcsarnok (Great or Central Market Hall) the market at Hunyadi Tér, Rákóczi tér, Klauzál tér or Lehel, in each you will find produce with dirt still clinging to it and meat that resembles an animal of some sort. Having been raised in the North American glossy Age of the Supermarket I am more acquainted to a more civilised grocery shopping experience where everything is wrapped in plastic. While a pig slaughter is a community affair in Hungary, every time I have been invited to one, as luck would have it, I had a dentist appointment at precisely the same time.
Collective farming, free market style
There does seem to be a conspicuous link to agriculture and the food we eat here in Hungary. The eggs that at first grossed me out are now far more preferred to the pale yellow yoke eggs I find back in Canada. The eggs here taste better. Chances are, they might be more healthy. Nor am I the first North American to comment that tomatoes here seem to be more more flavourful than the ones we get in our Supermarkets back home.
Hungary has a rich agricultural heritage but agriculture here is in decline. Hungarians who know farmers here have told me it is now often cheaper to buy slaughtered livestock originating in Belgium than it is to buy locally produced livestock. The number of farms is in decline. The food producing mega corporations have been buying up European producers and ‘improving’ production.
With progress comes change and those changes are certainly being felt here in Hungary. With change also comes learning. In time, Hungarians will finally learn where food really comes from: out of the back of trucks.
– Go cult. Be a follower.